I was delighted to be asked to give this year's lecture in memory of Lady Eve Balfour, in the 50th anniversary year of the Soil Association which she helped to found.
Lady Eve was a working farmer in Suffolk, and her intention was clear. She sought to investigate something that was simple but far-reaching; the existence of a vital relationship between the condition of the soil and health - of the crops which are grown in it, the animals that are raised on it and of the people who eventually consume them as food. In this she was a true pioneer; not least in adopting what would now be called an inter-disciplinary approach as she assembled nutritional, medical, agricultural, environmental and social material, in a way which is far from common, even today.
Based on her researches, Lady Eve penned the immortal line: 'the health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible'.
Fifty years later, that statement seems glaringly obvious to many of us, convinced as we are of the need to think ecologically. But in 1946, when the Soil Association was formed, the mood of the nation was quite different from what it is today.
Our country had just emerged from a war during which our isolation had forced us to produce as much food as we possibly could, from our own resources. Starvation had been a real risk. Science and technology had helped us to win that war and it was perhaps not surprising that people gained the idea that science could do almost anything for humanity. And where better to apply those new-found skills than food production? One new development followed another with bewildering speed and it must soon have seemed as if our mastery of modern science could increase output, banish weeds, pests and diseases and keep us one step ahead of whatever temporary setbacks might arise, indefinitely.
The period from that day to this spans 50 years, which encompasses many of our lifetimes and the entire history of the Soil Association. During those years farmers have done an admirable job - and I mean an admirable job - in meeting those clearly stated requirements for reliable supplies of inexpensive food, and they should be congratulated for this.
Working with a strong scientific supporting cast they have achieved dramatic increases in yields; utilising breakthroughs in plant breeding and agro-chemicals, combined with improvements in a wide range of agricultural technologies. Together, these have been so successful that there is now overproduction across Europe. But the prevailing mood during that period has been that man can dominate Nature and win; that human beings are not only at the top of the food chain, but that manipulation and domination of the natural world is somehow our destiny, even our duty. That, I think, is where things have gone wrong.
The Kentucky farmer and philosopher, Wendell Berry, summed up what I believe to be the true situation when he wrote: 'Farming cannot take place except in Nature; therefore if Nature does not thrive, farming cannot thrive. But we know too that Nature includes us. It is not a place into which we reach from some safe standpoint outside it. We are in it and are a part of it while we use it. If it does not thrive, we cannot thrive. The appropriate measure of farming then is the world's health and our health, and this is inescapably one measure.'
Only now, after 50 years, is the evidence of that measure beginning to emerge from the process (some might say the experiment) in which we have all, somewhat unwittingly, taken part - in other words, the progressive industrialisation of agriculture. And the results look profoundly disturbing. Today we are surrounded by evidence of what has happened to our farmland when husbandry-based agriculture is replaced by industrialised systems and where traditional management gives way to specialisation and intensification. We see the consequences of treating animals like machines; seeking ever greater 'efficiency' and even experimenting (catastrophically, as we now know) with totally inappropriate alternative 'fuels' - in the form of recycled animal proteins - with which to 'power' them.
All these things have been consistently drawn to our attention by this country's impressive environmental and animal welfare organisations. Their concerns are based on fact, data and analysis as much as on popular and emotional concern. They speak tellingly of lost biodiversity, of ploughed up pastures and species-rich mixed farms turned into impoverished arable acres; of huge reductions in the populations of birds such as the skylark and song thrush, and of many of our wild flowers; of polluted watercourses and, in places, of depleted and eroded topsoil.
They horrify us, when we can bear to listen, by telling us that dairy cows - with a natural life expectancy of 20 years or more - are now quite literally milking themselves to death by the time they are six or seven, worn out by producing more than their own bodyweight in milk every month, and suffering from a lethal combination of distended udders, lameness, chronic mastitis or infertility; despite the routine use of preventative applications of antibiotics and other drugs to control diseases, leading to resistance and the use of ever-stronger drugs. There is also the terrible irony of the dramatic increase in the consumption of intensively produced pork and chicken, almost all of which is produced under conditions which cause infinitely more suffering than the beef or lamb it replaces, in the search for 'healthy' meat.
It is no good looking for positively identifiable culprits for these horrors, except perhaps our society as a whole - for failing to value properly our natural assets, and the traditional, tried and tested ways of utilising them, until they were nearly gone. And, incidentally, for comprehensively abandoning that sense of the sacred which is ultimately the only realistic limit to the arrogance of our ambition. It would certainly be quite wrong to blame farmers for responding (as they could hardly fail to do) to the clear economic signals they were sent. So I hope we shall hear no more talk of vandalism - implying wilful damage. But, at the same time, it is difficult to over-emphasise the significance of what has been unwittingly destroyed in only two generations.
The loss has been gradual, insidious, just slow enough for us to convince ourselves that the lost rural idyll some of us may remember from our childhood was probably just a rose-tinted and romanticised dream. Perhaps in some respects it was but, unfortunately, the losses are all too real. Degraded environmental capital is not something one can easily reinstate. We have burdened ourselves and our children with the task of rebuilding what we have destroyed. I fear it may take them most of their lifetimes to do so. And the cost, both for us and for them, will be immense.
That is why I particularly welcome the Soil Association's new initiative, launched today, entitled 'Counting the Cost of Industrial Agriculture'. It is an important contribution to the debate, and it is all the more significant because it has been endorsed by some of the leading environmental and animal welfare groups. I am not going to name them again, but they are by no means radical, excitable or prone to scaremongering. Their combined membership amounts to more than three million people.
The report reminds us that we have all been embroiled in the experiment of intensive agriculture. It shows that we have been paying twice - not only to subsidise intensive farming through taxes, but again to restore, partially, the damage which that sort of farming creates. I need hardly mention the case of BSE, which the Ministry estimates will have cost taxpayers £1.4 billion by the end of this year in slaughter, compensation and related costs, not to mention the loss of public trust in science and the regulatory framework - and the personal suffering of so many individual farmers and their families.
But there are other equally dramatic examples of public expenditure now, made necessary by public expenditure in the past. In 1992 OFWAT estimated that pds1 billion of capital investment would be required by the water companies to remove pesticides from drinking water; but in addition the monitoring and removal of pesticides from contaminated water supplies is already costing us £121 million every year. Nobody knows what the future costs will be of so much officially-sanctioned use of organophosphates and organo-chlorines, or of the routine dosing of livestock with antibiotics. In addition, there is the huge but unquantifiable loss of landscape quality, wildlife and cultural diversity which reduces our genetic resources, depresses the human spirit and makes our lives less interesting and less fulfilling.
These hidden costs have never been linked to the price of conventionally grown food. The illusion has been maintained that intensive farming practices have at least given us cheap food. But the real sums are never done. If you add in the production subsidies, the degradation and loss of our environmental capital, and all the costs of cleaning up, then what started out looking like cheap food is actually nothing of the sort. At this point I can't resist commending the work of the Office of National Statistics in attempting to do at least some of these sums. In what they admit is a first step, the authors of a recent report calculated that agriculture contributes about 2% to our economy, but produces 10% of the acid rain and 4% of greenhouse gas emissions.
Fair competition, in the shape of a 'level playing field' and proper application of the 'polluter pays' principle - difficult though that might be - would make things look very different. At the moment I believe we tend to look at only one side of the balance sheet, thereby making it difficult for ourselves to reach a balanced judgment on the costs and benefits of current agricultural systems. Is it not time to remove these distortions and give those farmers who have opted to farm in a less intensive fashion, and who by and large don't inflict those hidden costs on the rest of us, a fair chance to compete in the market place on equal terms?
But are there yet more costs - nutritional costs - of intensive agriculture which should be taken into consideration? The scale of the damage on the environmental front is something we can often gauge with our own eyes. But the relationship between the quality of food from intensive agriculture and human health has been less obvious. Despite the efforts of Lady Eve and others, and whatever our hearts may have told us, hard evidence has been in short supply. The promoters of intensive agriculture have been able to get away with the assumption that the heavy and sustained use of nitrogen fertilisers and pesticides has had few, if any, ill effects. They honestly seem to believe that to grow food in that way neither threatens human health nor degrades the food they produce - and perhaps they are right. Certainly, it has been difficult, until recently, to challenge that belief with anything other than instinct, emotion and a recital of the precautionary principle. After all, those who were consuming the food produced by intensive agricultural systems were only in the early stages of the experiment! But the evidence is now beginning to emerge.
The New Scientist recently reported alarming research results from a study of the long-term effects of the so-called 'green revolution' in South Asia. New plant varieties fed with high levels of artificial fertiliser have dramatically increased food production, to no-one's surprise. But it now becomes clear that those intensively grown crops are nutritionally deficient. They lack vital trace elements and minerals, particularly zinc and iron. This deficiency has been passed on through the food to such an extent that an IQ loss of 10 points has been observed in a whole generation of children who have consumed a diet largely based on crops grown in this way. To quote the New Scientist:
'...even as the food supply in some countries has increased, so has the number of people suffering incapacitating vitamin and mineral deficiencies. This is threatening to lock parts of the Third World into an endless cycle of ill-health, low productivity and underdevelopment'.
If this is the way a responsible journal describes the effect of high input agriculture in the developing countries, could we expect to see the same thing in the developed West? The answer, of course, is that we simply don't know, and I find that profoundly worrying. There is evidence, admittedly from studies of laboratory animals, that the effects of a nutritionally inferior diet are not always apparent at first. It is sometimes only in the second generation that a greater susceptibility to disease and a rising level of infant mortality start to appear. It may also be that any inadequacies in our own food will be masked by the varied nature of our diet, or even by the increasing proportion of vitamin supplements we are constantly being encouraged to swallow. But there is already a well-documented and, as yet, unexplained decline in male fertility in many European countries, which some people believe may be linked to diet. And other research has suggested a significant decline in the trace mineral content of our fruit and vegetables over the last 50 years.
In the light of this evidence, circumstantial though it may be, it is surely imperative that further research is conducted into the real nutritional quality of food grown intensively in this country, and into the real costs of the possible side-effects of chemical farming. Will we, perhaps, end up paying through the Health Service for the so-called cheap food produced in this way? If so, it is clear that the poor, the elderly and people prone to illness will suffer disproportionately.
Now although there seems to be little dispute about the need for a change of direction in agricultural policy, the debate is still raging about the best way ahead. There is at least an increasing consensus among the environmental groups and they have, I know, sought to progress this with a practical and constructive dialogue with farming organisations and government. But, incredibly in my view, there are still people elsewhere who believe that we can 'feed the world with plastics and pesticides' and that we should intensify even further on the so-called productive land and turn the rest into nature reserves. This is not, however, an approach supported by those - such as the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB - who own and manage nature reserves; their constant refrain is that 'nature reserves can never be enough'. Then there are those who believe that the consequences of GATT, which will assist the globalisation of trade in agricultural products, will be wholly beneficial, with the fittest surviving in a glorious Utopian era of perpetual growth. And then there those who revel in the prospect of harnessing the awesome power of biotechnology to assist the relentless progress of high-tech agriculture. I suspect that few of you will be surprised to hear that none of these feature in my vision of sustainable agriculture! - or of sustainable anything else, for that matter!
Of course, biotechnology, genetic engineering, release of GMOs, call them what you will, are aspects of a particularly emotive subject, and I do not intend to stoke those emotions tonight. I shall content myself with quoting from the January 1996 report on the Government's Panel on Sustainable Development. They acknowledge, as I do, that genetic manipulation could lead to major advances in medicine, agriculture and the good health of the environment. Then they go on to say, crisply and clearly, that - and I quote:
'The introduction of GMOs must proceed with caution to ensure that any benefits now are not made at the expense of the safety and well-being of future generations and their environment. Once released...a GMO cannot be recalled: the action is irreversible. More than in other areas there is uncertainty about the long-term outcome of human actions and of human ability to deal with the consequences. Introduced genes may over time spread to other organisms with consequences that cannot necessarily be foreseen'.
And they end with a stark warning when they say, and again I am quoting their words:
'Unfortunately there are many recent examples of failure to anticipate problems arising from the use of new technologies (such as CFCs, asbestos, pesticides and thalidomide). Potential consequences are more uncertain where self-replicating organisms are introduced into the environment.'
I am not sure I have much to add to that; except to say that I believe that we have now reached a moral and ethical watershed beyond which we venture into realms that belong to God, and to God alone. Apart from certain medical applications, what actual right do we have to experiment, Frankenstein-like, with the very stuff of life? We live in an age of rights - it seems to me that it is about time our Creator had some rights too...
I am sure that the Government's response to this report, in the shape of a consultative process and a national conference, will be a great help. And it is, of course, reassuring to know that in this country we already have one of the most open and thorough regulatory systems in the world for assessing possible consequences of releasing GMOs into the environment. But that system has not been designed to weigh up the benefits of this dramatic new technology against the risks, nor can it compare the biotechnological approach with more conventional ways of achieving the same ends. At the moment, as is so often the case with technology, we seem to spend most of our time establishing what is technically possible, and then a little time trying to establish whether or not it is likely to be safe, without ever stopping to ask whether it is something we should be doing in the first place. I believe that this particular technology is so powerful and so far-reaching that we should seek ways of engaging a wide range of people and interests in a thorough ethical debate about how and where it should be applied.
I know that Commissions are not altogether fashionable at the moment, and that they are only as influential as the recipients of their recommendations are prepared to make them. But I do wonder whether there isn't a strong case for a standing body, like the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution - which itself produced a crucial report on GMO releases, as long ago as 1989. A Public Biotechnology Commission would provide a forum for discussion, by people with knowledge and vision, of the whole spectrum of possible effects, both good and bad. Such a body would help to bridge the gap that I believe exists between a tiny group of knowledgeable experts and the rest of us. At the moment I fear we are equally susceptible to the arguments of vociferous and plausible vested interests and to the somewhat apocalyptic scaremongering of those for whom any scientific advance is anathema.
Before I introduce a perhaps overdue European dimension to this talk, I think that we must recognise that for the last 50 years, we have given our farmers a remarkably narrow set of goals, and accompanying incentives to help them get there: economic performance without environmental accountability; maximum production without consideration of food quality and health; intensification without regard for animal welfare; specialisation without consideration of the maintenance of biological and cultural diversity. The signals we sent said what we wanted: cheap food and plenty of it. We can hardly blame our farmers now for their outstanding success in achieving those goals. But if we want to modify and add to those goals in the light of experience and changing public expectations, we are only going to be able to do so with the support of a further reformed Common Agricultural Policy.
Historically, vast amounts of money have gone into the CAP; but unfortunately the expenditure of it has not been modified sufficiently to keep pace with the many changes in technology, environmental impact and social concerns that have taken place in recent years. For instance, in 1995 only 2% of total CAP expenditure was spent on supporting agri-environment schemes, despite the fact that surveys show that most consumers would now put 'green' farming right at the top of their priority list for CAP support. Those agri-environment schemes do, of course, assist in various ways, but the RSPB's calculation that only one arable acre in every hundred is eligible for such schemes helps to put things into perspective! Some farmers have even managed to use set-aside and arable area payments constructively on the road to organic production, and I know that MAFF has encouraged this. But the total acreage utilised in this way has also been tiny.
We should not forget that many management practices and cropping regimes which are undertaken by 'conventional' farmers can have considerable benefits for landscapes and wildlife. But the rate of policy reform towards actually encouraging such things is desperately low. Initiatives which encourage more extensive and mixed arable cropping that are being promoted by a number of leading conservation agencies, to address the appalling decline in once common and much-loved farmland birds, simply have to be taken seriously.
One of the particular problems with the existing CAP payments is that they are still generally of greatest benefit to those intensive farms which have either a high proportion of arable land or high densities of livestock. The traditionally-managed mixed and extensive farms, which provide so many other benefits, do less well, particularly where the set-aside and arable payments are concerned. I suspect that most farmers receiving these payments know, in the privacy of their own minds, that this is 'money for old rope' and of little real value to the taxpayer. They also know that sooner or later this situation will end, and some may feel better when it does. One or two have even said so in public. But what happens then?
Well, there are some people (notably the free marketeers who are wholly in favour of GATT and the further globalisation of trade in agricultural products) who would prefer to see the CAP abolished altogether. For this group, farming has no special claim to be treated any differently from the steel and mining industries. But they are still, thank goodness, outnumbered by those who recognise that agriculture is unique, with responsibility not only for feeding us, but for the custody of a precious natural resource, as well as cultural and social dimensions that cannot be ignored. Farmers play a crucial role, not only in safeguarding the health of the nation and the environment, but also in maintaining the vitality and viability of our rural communities. Few would dispute the need to encourage farmers to become more responsive to their markets, but if we want farmers to adopt more environmentally sustainable methods it is clear that we could use the mechanisms of the CAP to encourage moves in this direction, together with training and encouragement, just as we used them in the past to encourage maximum production.
There are always going to be aspects of farming, such as maintaining the fabric of our landscape, where the costs cannot easily be passed on to the consumer. It is difficult to ignore evidence such as the recent Gallup poll which showed that 'the countryside' came second only to 'free speech' as the attribute most valued in Britain today. Yet it is impossible, and counter-productive, to attempt to attach a monetary value to such intangible aspects of our existence. So we need to find new ways in which all farmers can be supported for providing these services to society as a whole. There seems to be a growing consensus that the best way would be to make specific payments to farmers who commit the whole of their farms to environmentally sound methods, and to ensuring food safety, nutritional quality and animal welfare. This might form the heart of a future Common Agricultural Policy. But I suspect it will only come about if we can get away from the idea that CAP reform is all a matter of negotiation and look to develop a common purpose on issues such as the environment, rural development and food quality in a much more active way than at present.]
Of course, the prevailing 'expert' and 'official' wisdom about CAP reform in this country has been that while we might like to replace the existing outdated subsidy mechanisms, other European countries would fight tooth and nail to retain the status quo. The line has been that 'the mainland Europeans like things too much as they are, and they certainly don't all share our interest in the environment'. Well, I have done some testing of my own on this, at two seminars held at Sandringham, with the help of the Agricultural Reform Group, and my impression is that there may be a good deal more ground for consensus than is often suggested. We found that the mainstream European farmers shared many of the views of their supposedly more enlightened British counterparts. This consensus is to be tested further at a conference of farmers and environmentalists, entitled The Ground We Share, in Brussels next month. I don't believe that anything quite like this has been tried before, and I am simply delighted that the European Commissioners for both Agriculture and the Environment are scheduled to speak. It could be quite interesting...!
At a practical, measurable level, I was fascinated to see Nic Lampkin's study of the extent of organic farming in Europe. Under exactly the same CAP regulatory framework, there are wide differences in how much has been achieved. Several countries, including Sweden, Denmark and Germany, expect to have at least 10% of their land area in organic farming by the year 2000. They have recognised that organic farming delivers an impressive range of environmental and social benefits, which are worth the cost of assisting farmers during the transition period. In the German state of Hesse, for instance, a programme has been initiated with the specific goal of using organic agriculture as a mainspring of regional development. By combining farming and the on-farm or local processing of organic produce with other economic initiatives as diverse as tourism and community composting, farmers have been able to take a leading role as 'regional developers'. In the process they have been restored to their historic position as an essential part of the region's economic, social and cultural life. Hesse is utilising a range of Government and EU schemes to help with training, product development and marketing, as well as cultural and landscape development. Adding value to the region's primary products creates employment and a strong regional economy in an environmentally sound manner.
In contrast, despite the best efforts of the Soil Association, the Elm Farm Organic Advisory Service and, in the important field of horticulture, the Henry Doubleday Research Association, the current prediction for organic farming in this country is only around 1% by the year 2000. This is more than a little surprising, but may have something to do with the scale of the incentive payments, which are the lowest in Europe. Of course, the new MAFF-funded Organic Conversion Information Service, involving Elm Farm and the Soil Association, is much to be welcomed. And with only around 800 organic farms in this country and a growing and unsatisfied market for organic foods there would appear to be a tremendous opportunity for many more farms to convert. Indeed, I am told that the Soil Association will shortly be publishing some research conducted by MORI, which indicates that a majority of UK consumers would now prefer to buy organic food if the price and availability problems could be overcome.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am now, you will no doubt be relieved to hear, more than two thirds of the way through this lecture - and I have just mentioned organic farming for the first time. This is not an accident, nor an omission on my part. I am, of course, inextricably identified with the organic movement (which probably won't do their reputation any good at all), but when I first started farming organically my real aim was to explore the best ways of developing a sustainable system of food production. Organic farming was, and still is, the most effective system of applying what I thought to be the principles of sustainable agriculture. It is only much more recently that organisations as diverse as the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and our main environmental organisations have confirmed the benefits to conservation of organic farming (partly, I have to say, based on research at Highgrove).
I share the view of Lady Eve who said, nearly 20 years ago: 'The criteria for a sustainable agriculture can be summed up in one word - permanence, which means adopting techniques that maintain soil fertility indefinitely; that utilise, as far as possible, only renewable resources; that do not grossly pollute the environment, and that foster biological activity within the soil and throughout the cycles of all the involved food chains.'
You may well ask (and if you don't, someone will) what that means in practice. As far as I am concerned, the two key techniques of organic farming are:
Firstly, minimising the use of external inputs and replacing them with sound, natural, fertility-building rotations using legumes.
Secondly, controlling weeds, pests and diseases in crops and livestock with good management and sound husbandry, rather than with pesticides and pharmaceuticals.
After 11 years of farming organically at Highgrove (during which time we have learned a great deal, notably from our mistakes!) the farm really has begun to respond to the treatment and the system is clearly working in practice. The farm is profitable, and we now have premium outlets for nearly all our products. I have also now started applying similar principles to the management of some of the Duchy of Cornwall's woodlands within the Soil Association's Woodmark certification scheme, and I hope to do more of this in future.
Now I have certainly never suggested that organic farming could 'feed the world' which is, in any case, a problem of economics and politics as much it is of agriculture and technology. But, on the other hand, I am a firm believer that 'seeing is believing' and sceptics are regularly invited to come and look at the crops and livestock at Highgrove and suggest what sort of farming system could be more sustainably productive. You may - you will - find ways of producing more in the short term, but what about the long term? And isn't the long term the only thing we should be thinking about?
And that is all I have to say about organic farming at present, except to suggest that, even if they have no wish to face the challenge of conversion, conventional farmers could still learn a lot from their organic colleagues about how to apply at least some of the principles of sustainable farming. Sadly, the word sustainability itself is in danger of taking on rather technical connotations. It is an important word in more than a technical sense. There is an element of circularity to it. We must sustain the world if it is going to sustain us. We must act generously towards the soil which has been generous to us. Our lives are not sustainable if the world in which we live is not itself sustained - by us. If we come to understand that again, a certain dignity will I think return to our lives. We will no longer regard our planet as a treasure chest to be raided at will, but as a world that will nurture us if we will nurture it.
'The poetry of earth is never dead', John Keats wrote in his sonnet on the humble grasshopper. I hope that remains true and that we have not left things too late. The line itself - the poetry of earth is never dead - is full of optimism, even though it refers to a dimension of our relationship with the natural world which has been utterly abandoned in the purely technological agriculture which now surrounds us. It is a dimension which needs to be remembered, and rediscovered.
For the record (though nobody will report this bit, I promise you!), I am not interested in returning to the past, and that applies - I might as well tell you - whether I am talking about farming, architecture, education or complementary medicine! What I do believe, passionately, is that we should learn from the past, accept that there are such things as timeless principles, operate on a human scale, look firmly to the long-term, respect local conditions and traditions, and be profoundly sceptical of people who suggest that everything new is automatically better - invariably it turns out to be a short-lived fashionable approach anyway. It is also instructive to look to see where the proponents of such ideas are getting their research grants!
In particular, I happen to believe that agriculture is important as one of the foundation stones of a stable and sustainable cultural life. A society will in some ways model itself on the way it grows its food. If the way in which people farm is grasping, looks only to the short term, and is indifferent to the effects of what is being done on the generations that will follow, then that is what their society will be like too. But if there is a symbiotic relationship, as much about co-operation as dominance, gratitude as self-congratulation, as much about giving back as taking out, then that, I believe, will be a powerful shaping force in the lives we lead. The threat posed by the industrialisation of agriculture to our quality of life as a whole is the real reason why we need to care passionately about the future of farming.
I think it is worth remembering that in outlining his Gaia hypothesis Sir James Lovelock described the earth as a self-regulating organism. He suggested that if the balance was disturbed, equilibrium would eventually be restored, but not necessarily in a way which would be acceptable to humanity. Perhaps BSE will come to be seen as one example, albeit a very expensive and damaging one, of how Nature hits back when we violate her laws.
In order to avoid future breakdowns of a similar nature, I believe we shall need an entirely new set of guiding principles. Our objectives for the agriculture of the 21st century must surely embrace a wide definition of sustainability - one which encourages farmers to take pride in their role as stewards of the land. This does not necessarily mean farming organically. there are plenty of benefits to society from less-intensive, environment-friendly techniques which fall short of being organic. More important, in my view, is to embrace a set of objectives which includes the revival of rural communities and economies; which stresses the virtues of health and naturalness throughout the food chain; and which will enhance the quality of life - not only for those who work in agriculture but for the millions of others who take pleasure and pride in the countryside. These principles will have to be applied through locally sensitive policies, encouraging methods of farming the land which will suit local circumstances. It would help if the family farm were once again to be the basic building block of agriculture, and if local connections between producer and consumer were strengthened. There is some encouraging evidence that this is something which consumers actually want; and producers certainly do. The Local Food Links project is already enabling 40,000 British families to obtain weekly supplies of fresh, locally grown, seasonal food from producers they actually know something about. In some areas it is literally transforming relationships, bringing consumers whose view of farming has hitherto been restricted to the view from the window of a car or commuter train into direct contact with genuinely fresh produce, to the benefit of all concerned.
Such connections are important, both in this country and abroad, but as long as we continue to import food, and feedstuffs for livestock, ways will also have to be found of ensuring that the agriculture of the more affluent western nations does not undermine the fragile economies and vulnerable ecosystems of developing countries. This is something which only governments can do, but they will need to continue to play a part closer to home; regulating against the most damaging practices, taxing the polluter at the point where the damage actually occurs and supporting those farmers who play a stewardship role in the maintenance of the environment and healthy rural communities.
Our aim should be nothing less than to restore agriculture to its rightful place as one of the greatest and most important of all the enterprises in which human beings are engaged. Farming, if practised in its fullest sense - and not as another industrial process - is a unique fusion of science, art and culture. Good farmers understand how to work with the forces of Nature to the benefit of humanity, intervening without dominating or over-exploiting. Our intervention must be based on knowledge and science, but setting the balance between intervention and exploitation will always be an art. And it certainly needs to be taught in our Agricultural Colleges, otherwise none of this will be possible. If public opinion would support such an approach, and there is plenty of evidence that it would, then 50 years of hard work by the Soil Association, under its dynamic and inspired leadership, has been well worthwhile. The Association certainly deserves every congratulation on reaching such a significant anniversary.
It seems appropriate to end with a further quote from the ever-quotable Lady Eve. Speaking in 1977 about the pioneers of the worldwide organic movement, she said:
'They all succeeded in breaking away from the narrow confines of the preconceived ideas that dominated the scientific thinking of their day. They looked at the living world from a new perspective - they also asked new questions. Instead of the contemporary obsession with disease and its causes, they set out to discover the causes of health. This led inevitably to an awareness of wholeness (the two words, after all, have the same origin) and to a gradual understanding that all life is one.'
Personally, I sincerely hope that the Soil Association, in its second half century, will continue to follow that example, encouraging us all to look with fresh eyes at the relationships between society and agriculture; between food, health and our environment, and between ourselves and our planet."